Checked content

The Seagull

Related subjects: Theatre

Did you know...

Arranging a Wikipedia selection for schools in the developing world without internet was an initiative by SOS Children. Sponsoring children helps children in the developing world to learn too.

The Seagull

The Maly Theatre production in 2008.
Written by Anton Chekhov
Date premiered 17 October, 1896
Place premiered Alexandrinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russia
Original language Russian
Genre Comedy
Setting Sorin's country estate
IBDB profile

The Seagull (Russian: Чайка, Chayka) is the first of what are generally considered to be the four major plays by the Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov. The Seagull was written in 1895 and first produced in 1896. It dramatises the romantic and artistic conflicts between four characters: the ingenue Nina, the fading actress Irina Arkadina, her son the symbolist playwright Konstantin Treplyov, and the famous middlebrow story writer Trigorin.

As with the rest of Chekhov's full-length plays, The Seagull relies upon an ensemble cast of diverse, fully-developed characters. In contrast to the melodrama of the mainstream theatre of the 19th century, lurid actions (such as Konstantin's suicide attempts) are not shown onstage. Characters tend to speak in ways that skirt around issues rather than addressing them directly, a dramatic practice known as subtext.

The opening night of the first production was a famous failure. Vera Komissarzhevskaya, playing Nina, was so intimidated by the hostility of the audience that she lost her voice. Chekhov left the audience and spent the last two acts behind the scenes. When supporters wrote to him that the production later became a success, he assumed that they were merely trying to be kind. When Constantin Stanislavski, the seminal Russian theatre practitioner of the time, directed it in 1898 for his Moscow Art Theatre, the play was a triumph. Stanislavski's production of The Seagull became "one of the greatest events in the history of Russian theatre and one of the greatest new developments in the history of world drama."


After his purchase of the Milikhovo farm in 1892, Chekhov had built in the middle of a cherry orchard a lodge consisting of three rooms, one containing a bed and another a writing table. In spring, when the cherries were in blossom, it was pleasant to live in this lodge, but in winter it was so buried in the snow that pathways had to be cut to it through drifts as high as a man. Chekhov eventually moved in and in a letter written in October 1895 wrote:

I am writing a play which I shall probably not finish before the end of November. I am writing it not without pleasure, though I swear fearfully at the conventions of the stage. It's a comedy, there are three women's parts, six men's, four acts, landscapes (view over a lake); a great deal of conversation about literature, little action, tons of love.

Thus he acknowledged a departure from traditional dramatic action. This departure would become a critical hallmark of the Chekhovian theatre. Chekhov's statement also reflects his view of the play as comedy, a viewpoint he would maintain towards all his plays. After the play's disastrous opening night his friend Aleksey Suvorin chided him as being "womanish" and accused him of being in "a funk." Chekhov vigorously denied this, stating:

Why this libel? After the performance I had supper at Romanov's. On my word of honour. Then I went to bed, slept soundly, and next day went home without uttering a sound of complaint. If I had been in a funk I should have run from editor to editor and actor to actor, should have nervously entreated them to be considerate, should nervously have inserted useless corrections and should have spent two or three weeks in Petersburg fussing over my Seagull, in excitement, in a cold perspiration, in lamentation.... I acted as coldly and reasonably as a man who has made an offer, received a refusal, and has nothing left but to go. Yes, my vanity was stung, but you know it was not a bolt from the blue; I was expecting a failure, and was prepared for it, as I warned you with perfect sincerity beforehand.

And a month later:

I thought that if I had written and put on the stage a play so obviously brimming over with monstrous defects, I had lost all instinct and that, therefore, my machinery must have gone wrong for good.

The eventual success of the play, both in the remainder of its first run and in the subsequent staging by the Moscow Art Theatre under Stanislavski, would encourage Chekhov to remain a playwright and lead to the overwhelming success of his next endeavor Uncle Vanya, and indeed to the rest of his dramatic oeuvre.


Chekhov reads The Seagull with the Moscow Art Theatre company. Chekhov reads (centre), Stanislavski (to the left of him) and Meyerhold (seated far right) listen.
  • Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina - an actress.
  • Konstantin Gavrilovich Treplyov - Irina's son, a playwright.
  • Peter Sorin - Irina's brother.
  • Nina Mikhailovna Zarechnaya - the daughter of a rich landowner.
  • Ilya Afanasyevich Shamrayev - a retired lieutenant and the manager of Sorin's estate.
  • Polina Andryevna - Ilya's wife.
  • Masha - Ilya and Polina's daughter.
  • Boris Alexeyevich Trigorin - a well-known novelist.
  • Yevgeny Sergeyevich Dorn - a doctor.
  • Semyon Semyonovich Medvedenko - a teacher.
  • Yakov - a hired workman.
  • Cook - a worker on Sorin's estate.
  • Maid - a worker on Sorin's estate.
  • Watchman - a worker on Sorin's estate; he carries a warning stick at night.

Plot synopsis

Act I

The play takes place on a country estate owned by Sorin, a former government employee with failing health. He is the brother of the famous actress Arkadina, who has just arrived at the estate with her lover, Trigorin, for a brief vacation. In Act I, the people staying at Sorin's estate gather to see a silly play that Arkadina's son Konstantin has written and directed. The play-within-a-play stars Nina, a young girl who lives on a neighboring estate, as the "soul of the world." The play is his latest attempt at creating a new theatrical form, and resembles a dense symbolist work. Arkadina laughs at the play, finding it ridiculous and incomprehensible, while Konstantin storms off in disgrace. Act I also sets up the play's many romantic triangles. The schoolteacher Medvedenko loves Masha, the daughter of the estate's steward. Masha, in turn, is in love with Konstantin, who is courting Nina. When Masha tells the kindly old doctor Dorn about her longing, he helplessly blames the moon and the lake for making everybody feel romantic.

Act II

Act II takes place in the afternoon outside of the estate, a few days later. After reminiscing about happier times, Arkadina engages the house steward Shamrayev in a heated argument and decides to leave immediately. Nina lingers behind after the group leaves, and Konstantin shows up to give her a seagull that he has shot. Nina is confused and horrified at the gift. Konstantin sees Trigorin approaching, and leaves in a jealous fit. Nina asks Trigorin to tell her about the writer's life. He replies that it is not an easy one. Nina says that she knows the life of an actress is not easy either, but she wants more than anything to be one. Trigorin sees the seagull that Konstantin has shot and muses on how he could use it as a subject for a short story: "A young girl lives all her life on the shore of a lake. She loves the lake, like a seagull, and she's happy and free, like a seagull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom. Like this seagull." Arkadina calls for Trigorin and he leaves as she tells him that she has changed her mind, and they will not be leaving immediately. Nina lingers behind, enthralled with Trigorin's celebrity and modesty, and she gushes, "My dream!"


Act III takes place inside the estate, on the day when Arkadina and Trigorin have decided to depart. Between acts Konstantin attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head, but the bullet only grazed his skull. He spends the majority of Act III with his scalp heavily bandaged. Nina finds Trigorin eating breakfast and presents him with a medallion that proclaims her devotion to him using a line from one of Trigorin's own books: "If you ever need my life, come and take it." She retreats after begging for one last chance to see Trigorin before he leaves. Arkadina appears, followed by Sorin, whose health has continued to deteriorate. Trigorin leaves to continue packing. There is a brief argument between Arkadina and Sorin, after which Sorin collapses in grief. He is helped off by Medvedenko. Konstantin enters and asks his mother to change his bandage. As she is doing this, Konstantin disparages Trigorin and there is another argument. When Trigorin reenters, Konstantin leaves in tears. Trigorin asks Arkadina if they can stay at the estate. She flatters and cajoles him until he agrees to return to Moscow. After she has left, Nina comes to say her final goodbye to Trigorin and to inform him that she is running away to become an actress, against her parents' wishes. They kiss passionately and make plans to meet again in Moscow.

Act IV

Act IV takes place during the winter two years later, in the drawing room that has been converted to Konstantin's study. Masha has finally accepted Medvedenko's marriage proposal, and they have a child together, though Masha still nurses an unrequited love for Konstantin. Various characters discuss what has happened in the two years that have passed: Nina and Trigorin lived together in Moscow for a time until he abandoned her and went back to Arkadina. Nina never achieved any real success as an actress, and is currently on a tour of the provinces with a small theatre group. Konstantin has had some short stories published, but is increasingly depressed. Sorin's health is failing, and the people at the estate have telegraphed for Arkadina to come for his final days. Most of the play's characters go to the drawing room to play a game of bingo. Konstantin does not join them, and spends this time working on a manuscript at his desk. After the group leaves to eat dinner, Konstantin hears someone at the back door. He is surprised to find Nina, who he invites inside. Nina tells Konstantin about her life over the last two years. She starts to compare herself to the seagull that Konstantin killed in Act II, then rejects that and says "I am an actress." She tells him that she was forced to tour with a second-rate theatre company after the death of the child she had with Trigorin, but she seems to have a newfound confidence. Konstantin pleads with her to stay, but she is in such disarray that his pleading means nothing. She embraces Konstantin, and leaves. Despondent, Konstantin spends two minutes silently tearing up his manuscripts before leaving the study. The group reenters and returns to the bingo game. There is a sudden gunshot from off-stage, and Dorn goes to investigate. He returns and takes Trigorin aside. Dorn tells Trigorin to somehow get Arkadina away, for Konstantin has just killed himself.

Performance history

Premiere in St. Petersburg

The first night of The Seagull on 17 October 1896 at the Alexandrinsky Theatre in Petersburg was a disaster, booed by the audience. The hostile audience intimidated Vera Komissarzhevskaya, who some considered the best actor in Russia and who, according to Chekhov, had moved people to tears as Nina in rehearsal, and she lost her voice. The next day, Chekhov, who had taken refuge backstage for the last two acts, announced to Suvorin that he was finished with writing plays. When supporters assured him that later performances were more successful, Chekhov assumed they were just being kind. The Seagull impressed the playwright and friend of Chekhov Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, however, who said Chekhov should have won the Griboyedov prize that year for The Seagull instead of himself.

Studio portrait of Stanislavski as Trigorin from the 1898 Moscow Art Theatre production.

The Moscow Art Theatre production

Nemirovich overcame Chekhov's refusal to allow the play to appear in Moscow and convinced Stanislavski to direct the play for their innovative and newly-founded Moscow Art Theatre in 1898. Stanislavski prepared a detailed directorial score, which indicated when the actors should "wipe away dribble, blow their noses, smack their lips, wipe away sweat, or clean their teeth and nails with matchsticks", as well as organising a tight control of the overall mise en scène. This approach was intended to facilitate the unified expression of the inner action that Stanislavski perceived to be hidden beneath the surface of the play in its subtext. Stanislavski's directorial score was published in 1938.

Stanislavski played Trigorin, while Vsevolod Meyerhold—the future director and practitioner who Stanislavski on his death-bed declared to be "my sole heir in the theatre"—played Konstantin and Olga Knipper (Chekhov's future wife) played Arkadnia. The production opened on 17 December 1898 with a sense of crisis in the air in the theatre; most of the actors were mildly self-tranquilised with Valerian drops. In a letter to Chekhov, one audience member described how:

In the first act something special started, if you can so describe a mood of excitement in the audience that seemed to grow and grow. Most people walked through the auditorium and corridors with strange faces, looking as if it were their birthday and, indeed, (dear God I'm not joking) it was perfectly possible to go up to some completely strange woman and say: "What a play? Eh?"

Nemirovich described the applause, which came after a prolonged silence, as bursting from the audience like a dam breaking. The production received unanimous praise from the press.

It was not until 1 May 1899 that Chekhov saw the production, in a performance without sets but in make-up and costumes at the Paradiz Theatre. He praised the production but was less keen on Stanislavski's own performance; he objected to the "soft, weak-willed tone" in his interpretation (shared by Nemirovich) of Trigorin and entreated Nemirovich to "put some spunk into him or something". He proposed that the play be published with Stanislavski's score of the production's mise en scène. Chekhov's collaboration with Stanislavski proved crucial to the creative development of both men. Stanislavski's attention to psychological realism and ensemble playing coaxed the buried subtleties from the play and revived Chekhov's interest in writing for the stage. Chekhov's unwillingness to explain or expand on the script forced Stanislavski to dig beneath the surface of the text in ways that were new in theatre. The Moscow Art Theatre to this day bears the seagull as its emblem to commemorate the historic production that gave it its identity.

Recent productions

Uta Hagen made her Broadway debut as Nina (at 18) in a stellar production with Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in the 30's.

The Joseph Papp Public Theatre presented Chekhov's play as part of the New York Shakespeare Festival summer season in Central Park from July 25, 2001 to August 26, 2001. The production, directed by Mike Nichols, starred Meryl Streep as Arkadina, Christopher Walken as Sorin, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Treplyov, John Goodman as Shamrayev, Marcia Gay Harden as Masha, Kevin Kline as Trigorin, Debra Monk as Polina, Stephen Spinella as Medvedenko, and Natalie Portman as Nina.

In early 2007, the Royal Court Theatre staged a production of The Seagull starring Kristin Scott Thomas as Arkadina, Mackenzie Crook as Treplyov and Carey Mulligan as Nina. It also featured Chiwetel Ejiofor and Art Malik. The production was directed by Ian Rickson, and received great reviews, including The Metro Newspaper calling it "practically perfect". It ran from January 18 to March 17, and Scott Thomas won an Olivier Award for her performance.

A more recent production was that of the The Royal Shakespeare Company, which did an international tour before coming into residence at the West End's New London Theatre until 12 January 2008, starring William Gaunt, Ian McKellen (who alternated with William Gaunt in the role of Sorin, as he also played the title role in King Lear), Richard Goulding as Treplyov, Frances Barber as Arkadina, Jonathan Hyde as Dorn, Monica Dolan as Masha, and Romola Garai as Nina. Garai in particular received rave reviews, The Independent calling her a "woman on the edge of stardom", and This Is London calling her "superlative", and stating that the play was "distinguished by the illuminating, psychological insights of Miss Garai's performance." Despite the grim plot, the play was written as a comedy and is preceded by the legend: "A comedy in four acts". It played in repertory with King Lear.

The Classic Stage Company in New York City revived the work on March 13, 2008, in a production of Paul Schmidt's translation directed by Viacheslav Dolgachev. This production was notable for the casting of Dianne Wiest in the role of Arkadina, and Alan Cumming as Trigorin.

On September 16, 2008 the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway began previews of Ian Rickson's production The Seagull with Kristin Scott Thomas reprising her role as Arkadina. The following lists the entire cast for that production: Kristin Scott Thomas (Arkadina), Peter Sarsgaard (Trigorin), Mackenzie Crook (Konstantin), Art Malik (Dorn), Carey Mulligan (Nina), Pearce Quigley (Medvedenko), Peter Wight (Sorin), Zoe Kazan (Masha), Ann Dowd (Polina), Julian Gamble (Shamrayev), Christopher Patrick Nolan (Yakov), Mary Rose (Housemaid) and Mark Montgomery (Cook).

Analysis and criticism

The play has an intertextual relationship with Shakespeare's Hamlet. Arkadina and Treplyov quote lines from it before the play-within-a-play in the first act (and this device is itself used in Hamlet). There are many allusions to Shakespearean plot details as well. For instance, Treplyov seeks to win his mother back from the usurping older man Trigorin much as Hamlet tries to win Queen Gertrude back from his uncle Claudius.

Translating The Seagull

The Seagull was first translated into English for a performance at the Royalty Theatre, Glasgow, in November 1909. Since that time, there have been numerous translations of the text -- from 1998 to 2004 alone there were 25 published versions of the text. In the introduction of his own version, Tom Stoppard wrote: "You can’t have too many English Seagulls: at the intersection of all of them, the Russian one will be forever elusive." However, some early translations of The Seagull have come under criticism from modern Russian scholars. The Marian Fell translation, in particular, has been criticized for its elementary mistakes and total ignorance of Russian life and culture. Renowned translator and author of the book The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation Peter France wrote of Chekhov's multiple adaptations:

Proliferation and confusion of translation reign in the plays. Throughout the history of Chekhov on the British and American stages we see a version translated, adapted, cobbled together for each new major production, very often by a theatre director with no knowledge of the original, working from a crib prepared by a Russian with no knowledge of the stage.

Notable Translations

Translator Year Publisher Notes
George Calderon 1909 Glasgow Repertory Theatre This is the first known English translation of The Seagull. This translation premiered at the Royalty Theatre, Glasgow on November 2, 1909, also directed by Calderon.
Marian Fell 1912 Charles Scribner's Sons First published English language translation of The Seagull in the United States, performed at the Bandbox Theatre on Broadway by the Washington Square Players in 1916. Complete text from Project Gutenberg here.
Constance Garnett 1923 Bantam Books Performed on Broadway at the Civic Repertory Theatre in 1929, directed by Eva Le Gallienne.
Stark Young 1939 Charles Scribner's Sons Used in the 1938 Broadway production starring Uta Hagen as Nina, as well as the 1975 movie directed by John Desmond.
Elisaveta Fen 1954 Penguin Classics Along with Constance Garnett's translation, this is one of the most widely read translations of "The Seagull."
David Magarshack 1956 Hill and Wang Commissioned for the 1956 West End production at the Saville Theatre, directed by Michael Macowan, and starring Diana Wynyard, Lyndon Brook, and Hugh Williams.
Moura Budberg 1968 Sidney Lumet Productions Commissioned and used for the 1968 movie directed by Sidney Lumet.
Tennessee Williams 1981 New Directions Publishers Williams' "free adaptation" is titled The Notebook of Trigorin. First produced at the Vancouver Playhouse in 1981, the United States premier occurred at the Cincinnati Playhouse in 1996, starring Lynn Redgrave as Madame Arkadina. Williams was still revising the script when he died in 1983.
Tania Alexander & Charles Sturridge 1985 Applause Books Commissioned and used for the 1985 Oxford Playhouse production directed by Charles Sturridge and Vanessa Redgrave.
Michael Frayn 1988 Methuen Publishing Translated Nina's famous line "I am a seagull," to "I am the seagull," as in the seagull in Trigorin's story. This was justified by Frayn, in part, because of the non-existence of indefinite or definite articles in the Russian language.
Pam Gems 1991 Nick Hern Books
David French 1992 Talonbooks Used in the 1992 Broadway production by the National Actors Theatre at the Lyceum Theatre, directed by Marshall W. Mason and featuring Tyne Daly, Ethan Hawke, Laura Linney, and Jon Voight.
Paul Schmidt 1997 Harper Perennial Used in the 2008 off Broadway production at the Classic Stage Company, starring Diane Wiest, Alan Cumming, and Kelli Garner.
Tom Stoppard 1997 Faber and Faber Premiered at the Old Vic theatre in London on April 28, 1997. Its United States premiere in July 2001 in New York City drew crowds who sometimes waited 15 hours for tickets.
Peter Gill 2000 Oberon Books
Peter Carson 2002 Penguin Classics
Christopher Hampton 2007 Faber and Faber Used in the Royal Court Theatre's 2008 production of The Seagull at the Walter Kerr Theatre, directed by Ian Rickson and featuring Peter Sarsgaard, Kristin Scott Thomas, Mackenzie Crook and Carey Mulligan.
Retrieved from ""